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Spring is the beginning of
Sicily's "high" tourist season, when the foreign visitor will be forgiven for thinking that every day is a holiday --not in the sense
of a "vacation" but literally a publicly observed commemoration of an event or non-event. The first of May, Labour Day, when literally everything is
closed and there isn't even any bus service in cities, is certainly the most obvious example, but it is not unique.
In Italy the oldest holidays are religious ones still observed. There's the feast of the local patron saint (Rosalie in Palermo, Agatha in Catania), Christmas,
Easter (and the day immediately following each), Ferragosto (actually the Assumption), New Years Day (both religious and secular), the Epiphany, and so forth. The first of May, celebrated as
Labour Day, is also one of the feasts of the Virgin Mary. Whatever one's personal opinion about these various holidays, their existence is at least easy enough to understand.
In February and early March there are two less formal holidays (no bank or school closings), namely Valentine's Day and International Women's Day, that high-school
students interpret as occasions to skip classes. The night before Saint Joseph's Day, March 19th, bonfires are lit.
But each Spring there are two particular national holidays which, in theory, should be on a par with Bastille Day in France and Independence Day
(July 4th) in the United States, and whose eclectic origins make them less obviously appreciated by Italians or understood by non-Italians. Indeed, Italians
outside official governmental and military circles consider both to be little more than convenient excuses for taking time off from work and school, although certain political
parties try to exploit one or the other to their own selfish advantage. Granted that neither holiday is likely to be very important to you unless it complicates your stay in
Sicily, at the very least you may wish to know why stores and even restaurants are closed on April 25th or June 2nd.
April 25th is Liberation Day. While this holiday officially marks the end of the Second World War, and the defeat of Fascist forces in northern Italy, much myth and revisionism
surrounds it today. Cynics who remark that Italy is the only nation that celebrates its own defeat make a good point. Italians like to say that the "partisans"
defeated the Fascists of Mussolini's northern-Italian "Republic of Salò" in a kind of "civil war." This is mere wishful thinking, of course, for while Italian partisans certainly aided this effort, it was the
United States Fifth Army that fought its way through northern Italy in early 1945. As no nation --not even our beloved Italian Republic-- wants to attribute its very existence to the efforts of another,
the Italians prefer myth to reality here, completely ignoring the British, Canadian and American military cemeteries at Catania, Agira, Salerno, Rome, Monte Cassino and elsewhere in Italy.
For Sicilians, it is worth remembering that in Sicily the Italian and German (Axis) forces were defeated in July 1943, nearly two years before the brief battles in
Milan and Turin. There were certainly no partisans in Sicily (that military movement didn't emerge until Autumn 1943), and Italy did not switch
to the Allied side until September 1943, following the Allied Invasion of Sicily. Terrible
as Fascism in Sicily was, it was disgraceful
that almost all the Italian troops meant to defend Sicily fled with the Germans across the Strait of Messina, thus abandoning a large piece of Italy (their own nation) to the invaders. What Italian
military forces remained in Sicily, including the carabinieri, readily surrendered to Allied forces and began cooperating
with them in every way, even though they were supposedly still at war with the Americans and Brits!
The fall of Fascism was, of course, a welcome event but, as far as Sicilians are concerned, the shameful circumstances of our "liberation" in the Summer of 1943 seem to justify
little cause for celebration. As if the carpet bombings that killed thousands of civilians before the landings were not bad enough, one could only wonder what kind of payment Sicilian women proffered to American soldiers in return for nylon stockings and other gifts; it was all
quite sordid. More than six decades later, there is still a strong political dimension to Liberation Day nationally because it was traditionally celebrated with greater fanfare by the Left (and especially Communists and Socialists) than the
Right (in the past the former Christian Democrats and the ex-Fascists of the MSI); today Italy's national political parties are fewer in number and generally more centrist than in the past. Older Italians, many of whom were compromised with Fascism in some way, have transmitted their ambivalence to their children,
and --believe it or not-- a few Neo-Fascists even commemorate Mussolini just a few days after Liberation Day. True, the partisans cooperated with the Allies --their efforts in the field regarded primarily for nuisance value-- and even received military supplies
from the Americans, but they were undisciplined and often overzealous, occasionally murdering priests and other civilians who they perceived as having Fascist sympathies even when this may
have been based on mere supposition.
Then there's Republic Day, celebrated on June 2nd to commemorate the referendum in 1946 which ousted the Savoys and established the
Italian Republic. Here too we encounter a certain degree of confusion, but more through ignorance than any political or monarchist sentiment. To grasp this we must understand that the unification of Italy which brought about the monarchy
is itself much misunderstood, with greater virtue attributed to the unification movement (the Risorgimento) than it deserves. Even before Fascism (1922-1945), the Italian nation unified
in a series of conquests and annexations (Papal States, Two Sicilies, Tuscany, etc.) between 1860 and 1870 was essentially a police state with, at best,
a shadowy democracy. One reason Fascism was so readily embraced by the semi-literate masses in the 1920s is that it did not immediately embody much change from what had already existed.
Interestingly, the referendum of 1946 was the first time Italian women could vote, a full generation after this right had
been won by women in Britain, America and many other countries. It is a fact rarely mentioned in the official observances.
Here too there's a bit of creative mythology at work. The referendum was actually held under Allied auspices, a fact rarely mentioned during its commemoration
nowadays. Most of Italy was occupied by Allied forces until 1948 (and longer
in the contested area around Trieste). Churchill and the British supported continued existence of the Italian monarchy in some form, while the United States advocated establishment of a republic.
There was false balloting and election fraud in certain quarters, and the margin of affirmation (based on a two-thirds majority) supporting the republic was supposed to be greater than what was indicated in the
results actually counted. Italy is a republic today, but it almost didn't become one.
Until very recently, young Italians didn't study much about Fascism or the Second World War in school. To an Italian teenager, history ends around 1920. That's why very
few have ever heard of events such as the illegal Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia (and the subsequent treaty in which Italy became the first nation to acknowledge its crimes against
humanity), and why so many fall prey to the revisionist history advocated by political extremists. The greatest problem with the manner in which the
two patriotic holidays are promoted and celebrated is that they don't provide Italians with the astute sense of national identity enjoyed by the British, French and Americans. One consequence of
this is that many Italians consider the state, as an entity, to be at odds with their interests as citizens. While the reasons for this kind of attitude certainly transcend the celebration of a couple of springtime
holidays, it is clear that history must be portrayed accurately if it is to be taken seriously.
Republic Day was suppresed for a number of years, and revived to give Italians another day off from work. It's probably best to view Liberation Day and Republic Day
in their best light as good days for a picnic. Viva la libertà! And enjoy the barbecue.
About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has
written about social topics for various Italian magazines, including this one.